Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Pacifica Radio: Mixed Messages at WPFW

Pacifica Radio’s DC station is currently located in Washington’s Adams Morgan neighborhood, in renovated digs above the City Paper, a local weekly. When I visited in early 2006, the staff I met was exclusively Black, a state of affairs that one board member had described as representing a significant achievement, the attainment of “100 percent diversity.” Apparently the comment wasn't meant to be ironic.

We met in the spacious main room and I got the distinct impression that they hoped to keep things pretty much as they were. Better coordination would be nice, I was told, especially the Berkeley office’s willingness to pass on the names of national donors who lived in the DC area. But the main message was that local “autonomy” should be respected. In other words, don’t force the station to conform to a “national” vision of programming.

Ensconced in a corner office, one of the few relatively private spaces at the station, Verna Avery Brown required special attention. Her current job title was DC Bureau Chief, but there were no other members of the “bureau” except a few journalists who filled in when Verna was ill or on vacation. Her days revolved around developing five minute news breaks known as Headline News. Each installment consisted of a few stories, most rewritten from other sources. Sometimes she included audio excerpts from Democracy Now! Rarely did she leave the building to attend a news event or develop a story on her own. She also hosted a local weekly show and, if a topic sparked her interest, occasionally produced or hosted special broadcasts.

Verna had an effective radio voice and came across as supremely confident about her professionalism. When Dan Coughlin became ED, she’d returned to Pacifica as his deputy. But now she felt isolated. Her job description had changed, the executive and finance office had been moved from Washington to Berkeley, the Pacifica Radio Archives was in Los Angeles, and the rest of the national staff was in New York. Although she defended her work on Headline News, she also felt tethered to a daily schedule that precluded pursuing other projects. Verna wanted a budget that would allow her to hire staff and expand the daily news operation. Either that or she wanted a new job, preferably Network Programming Coordinator, a position that I would fill once a related National Programming Policy was approved.

I tried to be encouraging without promising anything. It was too soon to know whether Verna could effectively handle a more demanding administrative post, or where she might fit into a reorganized management picture. But it was impossible to ignore that in certain quarters she was considered an overpaid lightweight. As deputy director, she had received the third highest salary in the organization. When Coughlin took the main office to Berkeley and changed her title, he’d avoided conflict by leaving her pay the same. Some members of the national staff with equivalent or even more demanding jobs were getting almost $30,000 less and knew it.

Compounding the problem, her daily news briefs weren’t carried by all sister stations, or aired only occasionally during the day. Verna claimed the service was popular with affiliate stations, but it wasn’t clear how many carried it, or how often. Pacifica die-hards also complained that the content, despite her professional voice, wasn’t fresh or compelling, and that some days – without notice – Headline News simply wouldn’t be distributed.

Verna did have supporters and understood how Pacifica’s office politics worked. But it’s unlikely that she knew just how many people, from board members to managers and staff, wanted her to go. The drumbeat was as loud as the clamoring for Bernard White’s ouster from WBAI in New York, and actually more widespread. Nevertheless, even if I did decide they were right I recognized that she wouldn’t leave without a fight – and possibly another lawsuit the organization didn’t need.

The DC leg of the journey also included a briefing from Pacifica’s FCC lawyer John Crigler, a testy encounter with several disgruntled members of the local station board, talks with other veteran journalists eager to see the network get serious about covering breaking news, holding court at Busboys and Poets as Sam Husseini brought over local activists for frank discussions, and long teleconferences with the PNB and its Coordinating Committee. By the time I hit the road again my head was reeling.

Since FCC rules weren’t my strong suit, I welcomed Crigler’s orientation. Yet it was worrisome to learn the details of two obscenity complaints against WBAI. Not only did they require a legal defense but might end up costing the organization up to $33,000 each in fines. The word on use of station sub-channels wasn’t much better. Income from the leasing of these sidebands was rapidly drying up as tenants pressed for conversion to high definition (HD) radio. Pacifica had yet to develop a policy or plan.

WPFW’s dissident local board members were upset about several things. Most immediately, they felt that the election for delegates to the national board had been mishandled and planned to challenge it. Beyond that, they echoed the criticisms I’d already heard about General Manager Ron Pinchback’s unresponsiveness and programming – too much music and not enough public affairs for a progressive station in the nation’s capital. With Bush in the White House and a war in Iraq, went the critique, how could a Pacifica station – especially one that called itself “The Messenger” – possibly justify running music about 19 hours out of every 24? Actually, the answer was simple. It paid the bills, and substantially altering the mix after so many years risked alienating existing listeners without being certain that new ones would be as generous. But this wasn’t an explanation many people wanted to defend in public.

After almost a week immersed in conflicts and problems at the two East Coast stations, it bordered on the surreal to hear the Pacifica National Board’s Coordinating Committee calmly discuss plans for a retreat on diversity and civility. They wanted to improve “interpersonal relations” between board members, discourage “uncivil speech,” promote anti-racism, and, in the words of one Board member, “let people know there are consequences” for going over the line.

Finally someone asked, “Where are the existing policies written?” No one seemed to know.

Part Four of Pacifica Radio: A Listening Tour

Next week: KPFT

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